The utimate novellas

We chart the top 10 short-but-not-too-short tales

How to Get Into the Twin Palms
How to Get Into the Twin Palms Karolina Waclawiak

The reviews for the newest, online-only effort from the world of arts and letters’ darling of the sort-of sci-fi have begun, and regardless of whether Karen’s Russell’s ‘Sleep Donation’ is worthy, its appearance marks a mainstream statement of acceptance of both the much-maligned eBook and the short-but-not-that-short form. To the former, we say: ‘I told you so.’ To the latter: awesome. While in the wrong hands the novella is easy prey for accusations of ‘awkward’, ‘too long’, ‘too short’ and ‘a waste of hysterically dwindling natural and publishing industry resources’, it’s also got so much potential: there’s just enough room to get comfortable, not enough to start making you resent the day you ever learned to read. Not to mention that it’s particularly well-suited to digitization. We highlight ten of our favourites that feel ‘just right’.

WESTWARD THE COURSE OF EMPIRE TAKES ITS WAY BY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

Despite its being of a form inherently less than, the difficult novella at the end of DFW’s 1989 collection Girl with Curious Hair is an expansive effort that takes a metafictional journey from fictional world to real, author-in-chair one, a critical turning point in the development of Wallace’s project and style, though many would argue they’re the same thing.

Girl with Curious Hair
Girl with Curious Hair David Foster Wallace

HOW TO GET INTO THE TWIN PALMS BY KAROLINA WACLAWIAK

On the long side of short, Waclawiak’s How to Get Into the Twin Palms from awesome indie publishers Two Dollar Radio tackles notions of culture, inclusivity, language and sex with a dual application of wit and devastation that fits its medium length perfectly: there’s time to laugh and time to cringe, but it’s the not-quite-either parts in the middle, which wouldn’t have so much space to breath in a shorter work, that really make it worth a couple of extra hours. 

How to Get Into the Twin Palms
How to Get Into the Twin Palms Karolina Waclawiak

VARAMO BY CÉSAR AIRA

You can easily imagine the accessibly avant-garde Aira winking at himself in the mirror as he’s writing: Varamo traces the day of a government employee after he suddenly becomes inspired to write what easily becomes a masterpiece in Central American poetry. Think Kafka meets David Foster Wallace meets Nabokov, poetry and philosophy swirled into a rollicking narrative and packed into pocket-size. 

Varamo
Varamo César Aira

WALKS WITH MEN BY ANN BEATTIE

Walks with Men begins with intensity tinged with the bitterness of post-facto feminist skepticism: ‘In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he would change my life, if only I’d let him.’ Beattie’s protagonist is a painful picture of postgraduate gullibility and the difficulties of learning to figure shit out for yourself when someone older and wiser would rather mansplain the way. 

 

Walks with Men
Walks with Men Ann Beattie

BONJOUR TRISTESSE BY FRANCOISE SAGAN

There’s something about the novella that lends it to the doomed yet formative coming-of-age love affair; it lasts about as long as it takes to get invested and ends maybe before you wanted it to, even though you know it should. Like Walks with Men, Sagan’s cult fave was written with the effects of the older man archetype in mind, but its heroine fights to mold the world around her rather than shape herself to it. Neither tactic ends up working.

Bonjour Tristesse
Bonjour Tristesse Francoise Sagan

THE PEDERSEN KID BY WILLIAM GASS

Collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, this one is what some consider the pinnacle achievement of the very-60s Gass: dark, pessimistic, flouting conventions of plot, deeply concerned with language and consciousness. Gass’ formidable control of pacing drives his depiction of an evil at the heart of the heart of everything, and it builds to an ending that’s both shocking and totally, devastatingly not. 

“The Pederson Kid” in In the Heart of the Country
“The Pederson Kid” in In the Heart of the Country William Gass

03 BY JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VALTAT

Composed of a single paragraph that spans 81 pages, Valtat’s English-translation debut is offensive and difficult and ambitious, in possession of an addictive forward momentum despite being inherently inert: it’s about a teenage boy’s unrequited obsession with a ‘slightly retarded’ girl he sees at his bus stop, which starts and ends the book as an apt symbol for the wait for adulthood – and agency – to begin.

03
03 Jean-Christophe Valtat

SANS YOU BY HANNAH FANTANA

Alt lit’s trademark deadpan 'is-it-irony?' serves Fantana well; her mostly autobiographical angst is sprinkled with surprising details, apt comparisons and a randomness that is funny and genuinely unexpected. Although its topic (and, actually, title) is inherently self-centered, sans you also considers the late-teenage realisation that one is not only an individual, but an individual among many other individuals, and how hard it is to come to terms with it.

Watch the video of Hannah reading an exclusive excerpt from Sans You.

 

THE MERE WEIGHT OF WORDS BY CARISSA HALSTON 

Halston questions the priorities of an age when ‘content is king’ and so many scoff at semantics; are the ‘grammar Nazis’ really as evil as their namesakes? Here, the content is semantics, the plot a ‘mere’ device that not only plays on a characters name but also to showcases the writer’s struggle to weigh the significance of her tools. What results is a somehow potent exploration of the cerebral. 

The Mere Weight of Words
The Mere Weight of Words Carissa Halston

THE MIMIC’S OWN VOICE BY TOM WILLIAMS

The novella seems a favourite form for challenging the role of words and, by extension, the author, and in Williams’ obviously analogous treatment of a comedian whose chief skill is mimicry, the question of the artist’s role in making art – and the question of art’s role in the artist’s life – takes center stage. While Williams’ handling of pop culture and detail is deft, it’s the work’s difficult question – if my life is my work and my work is others’ lives, then who am I? – that gets you.

The Mimic’s Own Voice
The Mimic’s Own Voice Tom Williams
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